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Advice – My friend declared that she is polyamorous, revealed an affair, and then moved out.

M (28 M) & F (28 F) are two of my very best friends. I love them both and they’ve both been incredibly consistent and supportive figures in my life as a couple and individually for years. I do not know what to do here.

A few days ago, I found out they had separated (they’ve been together for 10 years and married for 4). I have spoken to both of them separately, and the particulars of the stories are consistent although their perceptions/feelings are quite different. Recently, F came to M and announced that she was poly. She wanted to have sex with other people and this was non-negotiable. She arrived at this conclusion after a couple of months of serious reading on the subject and listening to podcasts. They had casually discussed opening their relationship/having a threesome, but due to the pandemic, nothing had progressed. But now, she was insistent that she needed to open the relationship immediately. She brought up a mutual male friend (T) that she had been discussing polyamory with and wanted to try sleeping with him. M was hesitant but she said she was absolutely certain she needed to do this or she would have no choice but to leave.

She ended up convincing (it is now clear that this meant coercing through threats of divorce) M to have a threesome with this other man. It went poorly, in that M did not enjoy it and did not want to do it again. F was insistent that she now not only wanted to have sex with T, but was also in love with him and needed it to be okay that she nurture a romantic relationship as well. M said no. So, she moved out.

She wants to continue to see T and live separately for a couple of months while she decides whether or not she wants to work on their marriage. She told me with great apparent clarity that M is “incapable” of meeting her sexual and emotional needs and that she does not see herself growing old with him. But she isn’t sure she’s ready to leave him entirely and wants to “take it slow.” She also said a lot of things about M “holding her back,” and said she’d always wanted to live all over the world and he was preventing her from doing that–even though the entire time I’ve known her all she has talked about is buying a house and settling down in our city. Not to mention M supported her while she was in school and until she got her first serious job.

I’ve spoken with her best friend (BF), who thinks she is having some sort of manic episode. Unfortunately, F is not receptive to discussing mental illness as a factor in this. She does have a psychiatrist, but we are under the impression she is sugar coating the situation to them and they are just validating her. She has also apparently gotten seriously into horoscopes and other forms of spirituality, whereas before she was a staunch atheist. T is known to be unreliable/flaky by mutual friends and is unemployed and nomadic, so we are not expecting him to stick around long-term.

F’s friends are pretty unanimously of the opinion that she is suffering from some sort of mental illness and that she’s also being a total a-hole. I am utterly speechless–this is just not the person I thought I knew. I know she suffered with depression and anxiety during the COVID lockdown, but it seems to me that she used polyamory as something to latch onto and used that as an excuse to nurture an emotional and eventually physical affair. She has not expressed real interest in making it work with M–she is spending all her time with T, and getting into all the same hobbies and spiritual stuff he is into. BF thinks from their conversations that she was having an emotional affair with him well before she “came out” as poly to her husband.

I don’t want to dismiss the possibility that she is actually polyamorous and that is something that will be a lasting priority for her–but the way this developed is disturbing to me and our friends. She is treating M terribly. We are all focused on supporting M and trying to help him set boundaries with her (she is still calling him for reassurance that what she’s doing is okay and he is struggling to tell her that no, it’s not). At the same time, I want to sit her down and lay out for her how unfair/awful she’s being, but I’m concerned that if she is genuinely in some sort of mental distress that this will just alienate her when she crashes and needs support. Up until now she was literally just the sweetest, most reliable person from my perspective, and I do feel obligated to try to help or at least tell why before I ice her out.

Tl;dr: My friend has made a lot of drastic decisions in the last month including leaving her husband. I am struggling with how to talk to her and hold her accountable while also not alienating her in case she needs help.

Any suggestions or advice on whether or not to try talking to her and what tone to take would be appreciated.

Anonymous, Reddit.

Dear Anonymous,

My heart breaks for you and your friend’s husband.

Let’s first start with this. Coercion is not consent. If the context of their opening up was measured against an ultimatum, then the consent derived from that context is not meaningful. Her behavior is neither kind nor respectful of the ten-year relationship they’ve fostered together. And even if he had to say yes, that was more of a partner loss prevention strategy rather than an informed and fair consent. It should be disqualifying of a partner to unilaterally change agreed-upon rules of the relationship without any negotiation.

In addition, it also sounds like the context of her ultimatum didn’t come from an ethical place either. Going from casually discussing threesomes to deeply discussing polyamory with a mutual friend shows how massive that disconnect has been between his and her perceptions of their marriage. That divide is further elaborated in the ensuing threesome experience with the very mutual friend who she has been flirting with online. He clearly wasn’t into bringing in another person, much less involving a mutual friend he feels no sexual attraction toward. And that too is coercive, and therefore non-consensual.

I also want to touch on how wild it sounds that even though M did not consent to a polyamorous relationship, F is sort of forcing herself into being in a polyamorous relationship with both T and M by not immediately pursuing a divorce with M. In doing so, she gets validation of self-worth when she is calling M for reassurances, without doing any of the actual emotional labor required to do polyamory with M. It shows how incredibly disconnected from reality F is, and how she is taking advantage of M at his weakest. It just sounds like F is keeping M as a safety net in case this polyamory experience doesn’t (and likely won’t) work out. And since they are still married, what else could M do but take F back when she says that “this was all just a mistake”?

Photo by Egor Lyfar on Unsplash

It is important to remember that polyamory is a subset of ethical non-monogamy.

And if their behavior is unethical (like strong-arming a partner into an uncomfortable sexual scenario), then it doesn’t matter how much they stomp their feet into the mud and claim that they are polyamorous; they are not. Reading all the books, listening to all the podcasts, and flirting with all the polyamorous people doesn’t make you polyamorous. And F would be no more polyamorous than she would be a good partner. And she is unfortunately neither of those things.

The truth is that you are never an island in relationships. You never just date people on a blank slate; you also date their circumstances. We all have people we already care about, long before our partners arrive into our lives. And in polyamory, that can look like your overall polycule, the pre-existing agreements you’ve established with your existing partner(s), and everyone’s relative transmission risk profiles (COVID and STI). Not only that, polyamory takes a different set of skills than monogamy. Proactively abridging communicative gaps between all relationships, keeping everyone informed on any changes to COVID or STI transmission risk profiles, and managing multiple relationships so that each relationship is still meaningful in its own way are all skills that a 401 course in monogamy will never cover. And there is no better example of how to fail at polyamory than what we have here.

This is one of the reasons why I think it is more prudent and beneficial to ask “Can I do polyamory?” rather than “Am I polyamorous?”

Even if we operate under the assumption that whatever transpired between F and T could never be classified as an emotional affair, it should be clear to T that whatever is happening prior to F’s unilateral decision to open up has been not only unethical but harmful to his lover’s marriage. And his inability or negligence to take accountability for the harm he has caused in F’s relationship should be unbecoming of T as a friend.

Photo by Emre on Unsplash

Now let’s talk about your friendship with F.

You have gathered a mountain of data here, both through your personal reflections and through cross-referencing your data with her childhood best friend as well. And in the data you have gathered, it is very clear that F is no longer the best friend you once knew her as. And in the face of these changes, consider reassessing what it means to be a friend to a person who is in denial of their potential mental illness, who is possibly manipulating her psychiatrist to gain validation, who in her mighty “clitful thinking” shattered the very relationship she has been in since she was just eighteen, who continuously talks bad about your mutual friend M in such humiliating and dehumanizing way, who constantly disrespects M’s boundaries around the relationship he wants to have.

If you met this person tomorrow, would you have fostered a friendship with this person?

Your friend is a grown adult, unfortunately very capable of making her own decisions, however destructive or dispassionate they may be. But it isn’t like seeing all these things unfold in front of you gets rid of the connection you’ve already fostered with her over the years. However, there is a significant display of codependent patterns here – both from you and from M. I strongly, strongly urge you (and M) to take a look at this list of common patterns and characteristics of codependence because, even if you aren’t out there validating her perspective like her psychiatrists might be, not addressing it perpetuates through enabling.

Your friend is responsible for her mental headspace. Even if you are right that this is a reflection of her mental disorder, F is responsible for acknowledging it and addressing it. So I don’t really know it would be fair to retroactively justify her bad behavior through the filter of her undiagnosed mental disorder. That feels like trying to read a book before the book is printed.

And I think it is a good time to establish some healthy boundaries here.

Near the end of the post, you say that you “feel obligated to try to help or at least tell why before [you] ice her out.” Let’s assume that F’s behavior is a result of an undiagnosed mental disorder. Even so, it isn’t your responsibility – as her friend – to diagnose how her depression and anxiety has manifested in the form of polyamory. That would be the responsibility of the trained medical professional like a psychotherapist or a couple’s counselor who have had extensive clinical experiences. It also isn’t your responsibility to help M or F patch up and fix their broken marriage; that would be their own responsibility should they choose to reconvene their marriage. Lastly, it isn’t your responsibility to hold F accountable in how she is failing in her relationship with M; that one falls solely on M.

It is however, your responsibility as a friend to let her know that you cannot support her current destructive behavior. At this juncture, you can continue to be friends with her, but establish boundaries around talking about relationships such that you don’t perpetuate and continue to enable the relationship trauma upon M. As in, “Hey F. I really miss the reliable and compassionate version of you. But please stop telling me about your relationship with T or M. It costs me too much sanity to keep hearing your hurtful comments regarding my friend M.” Or you can just put a contingency pin on this friendship with F until she comes to you for support. As in, “Hey F. The way you hurt M made me reconsider our friendship. I can’t be a part of your life while you keep hurting M. So we can’t be friends for X amount of time. I really want to be able to celebrate your polyamorous connections, but it’s too painful right now. Let’s reconnect when the pain isn’t so raw anymore and catch up with each other then.”

I understand your inclination and desire to be there for your friend F. Like I said, it isn’t like your appreciation for F disappeared the moment she stopped being a compassionate partner to M; that is still there. But a fond recollection of your good times is not enough to sustain a failing friendship, in the same way that ten-year relationship history between F and M is not enough to sustain a failing relationship.

Lastly, we should also touch on your friendship with M.

In the same way that F is entitled to make destructive decisions, so is M. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that you should establish the same boundaries you’ve had to establish around F. As someone who has supported a partner through a devastating end to a decades-long relationship, I can tell you that, based on experience, M could be experiencing major relationship withdrawal, desire to “relapse” back to F, and severe depression from this traumatic experience. M has to work through the pain from grief and loss of not just his past-tense marriage, but the loss of the future he intended to have with his wife. That is way above your pay-grade. If he isn’t already speaking to a therapist, I would strongly urge M to seek therapy and counseling.

If you have the (emotional) resources to do so, grieve with him because you too have lost a best friend in F, someone you’ve known to be dependent and reliable. And perhaps that dependent and reliable F will re-emerge when she recognizes that her heart is writing checks that her brain cannot cash.

I personally hate to see polyamory get such a bad rep, like it does here. Because when it works, it is great. But F is not polyamorous. She’s just an asshole justifying her shit behavior through words of polyamory.

Good luck!

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

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